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Down by the water

I feel some sermons would be greatly enhanced by the selective use of music.

This sermon, for example, is fine.  I love the story of Naaman and the Downton Abbey-esque intrigue with the servants, and his meltdown over having to bathe in the (apparently really objectionable) Jordan River.

But I would like you to imagine the sermon as scored by the Decembrists and Gillian Welch:

See?  Epic sermon!!

 

February 12, 2012

Epiphany 6, Year B

2 Kings 5:1-14

In the Episcopal Church, there was no reading from the Old Testament in

the Eucharistic service until the 1979 prayer book, (otherwise known as the

‘new’ prayer book.)

Prior to this, Eucharist required only a reading from the Gospel, and a short

snippet of Paul’s letters, if you were lucky, or unlucky, depending on how

you felt about Paul.

The Old Testament really only got read during Morning Prayer…which was

fine, since Morning Prayer was what most people did most Sunday

mornings anyway. But as far as the Eucharist went, that primary form of

Christian worship, well, why on earth would need to read the Old

Testament then anyways? There’s no Jesus in that!

 

It’s been pointed out that in Christian history, we’ve tended to do one of two

things with the Old Testament: we’ve ignored it altogether, or we’ve just

crammed Jesus on in there, anyway he would fit, like that Marx Bros-

Night-at-the-Opera-stateroom-bit. Early Christian commentaries of this

reading talk about Namaan being cleansed by baptism! Though he didn’t

know it! And its a foreshadowing of John at the Jordan through faith!

 

One of the things I strongly believe is that, just as it is wrong to make an

idol of Scripture by freezing it in time, so it is wrong to entirely mangle a text

to death. Attempting to send Elisha and Naaman forward and back through

a time machine is a fascinating sort of violence, but it is equally impolite,

and destructive.

And what a great story we miss, if we reduce what’s happening here to

“Baptism!”

 

Naaman has been excelling in his job, as a general in the Aramean army,

when a minor inconvenience pops up: he gets leprosy. Now while you

might picture this as a dire circumstance in which pieces of Naaman start to

drop off suddenly as he’s on the battlefield one day– be not afraid.

Leprosy is basically a catch-all term in Hebrew for any rash, or

discoloration at all. “Leprosy” could come and go all the time. Much ink is

spilled in Leviticus on what to do in the event your house develops leprosy,

or what we would call–mold. So Naaman most likely has a rash. But even

so, it’s embarrassing for him, and throws a definite wrench into his army

career trajectory.

So he stews about it. Lucky for him, his wife’s plucky slave girl, lately

stolen from Israel on a raid, tells him all about this great prophet they have

back home who would definitely take care of that leprosy in a heart beat, no

problem, you bet.

And, it’s convoluted, but Elisha ends up hearing about Naaman from the

(defeated and annoyed) king of Israel and agrees to help the enemy

general. He sends word to go wash in the Jordan River.

And Naaman has a cow. An Ancient Near East equivalent of a temper

tantrum.

It’s a stupid, ugly river! He says, basically. And he couldn’t have come out

here himself? And I don’t have better rivers back in Syria?!?!

Naaman’s having a rough time.

Remember, Naaman is an Aramean, not an Israelite. Not Jewish. The fact

that he’s asking for help from a prophet of YHWH, and a king he’s just

finished defeating is very strange. This whole story is, in a sense, a death

spiral of shame for Naaman.

So far, he’s sought help from a slave girl, a defeated king, and a foreign

heathen prophet to cure his shameful skin ailment. Naaman has now hit

rock bottom, and to top it off, he’s being told to do something he finds

insultingly easy and beneath him.

As much as his skin disease is a problem– so is his conviction of his

specialness. So is his conviction that all these people who so far have

helped him, can have no real help he could possibly need.

The tipping point for Naaman comes when he has to acknowledge, in

however small a way, that help might come from foreigners, not from

himself. And healing might come from a really dirty foreign river.

 

Annoying as it seems to him, his salvation comes from the people he

dislikes, from the actions he considers beneath him. And it’s when he

finally admits the thing he’s been afraid of all along, that he’s healed.

 

Because, my hunch is– Naaman spends so much time in this story insisting on his

specialness, his high status, precisely because he’s petrified it isn’t actually

true at all. He’s a high-ranking general, but anyone with leprosy was an

immediate outcast, seen as cursed by the gods.

He’s not really special at all– if anything, he’s the reverse. And he’s trying

hard to cover it up his conviction by denigrating everyone else.

 

What is it that convinces us that worth is zero sum? That in order for me to

be right, everyone else has to be wrong. In order for me to be valuable,

everyone else has to be worthless.

It’s a sort of panicked mindset that blinds us to so much.

This story of Naaman is one that Jesus will tell when he preaches his first

sermon in Nazareth– how in the days of the prophets, Elisha was sent to

no one in Israel but a foreign general. His point is actually that the love of

God is not zero-sum at all, but all inclusive,

But the crowd listening to Jesus becomes enraged, and tries to throw him

off a cliff, because they don’t like the suggestion that their God could love

foreigners and heathens too.

And thirty five years or so ago, this isn’t even a story we would have read,

out of the conviction that the scriptures Jesus cited could have nothing to

say to us. Because if we were right as Christians, then we were special,

and the Hebrew Bible was only competition

But if we have faith in the infinite, and abiding love of God for everyone, like

we say, then we can’t compete for value and for truth like prizes. God loves

us, completely unconnected to our accomplishments, or intelligence or

wealth of sarcasm,much to my chagrin. And however much God loves us,

that’s precisely how much God loves everyone else. This is not a contest.

We have already won.

The prizes are here all around us, once we come to truly believe it and go

to the smelly old river, and

Finally take a bath.

Amen.

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About megancastellan

Episcopal priest, writer, wearer of fancy shoes.

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